20 July 2010

Christos' papou and yiayia

Christos Tsiolkas is an Australian author, whose book Dead Europe I am yet to finish so that I can begin reading The Slap. He wrote an interesting piece about his family in The Guardian on 10 July 2010, which was reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum) on 17 July 2010. Excerpt

I never met either of my grandfathers. My maternal papou had died when I was a toddler. It still remains a wounding regret of my mother's that she never had a chance to go back home to see him on his deathbed. But with a small child and my newly born baby brother, there was neither means nor opportunity for her to return. We have become so jaded with the ubiquity of air travel that we are apt to forget just how difficult, how expensive, how magical it once seemed. Dad did return to Greece to bury his father. He has returned once more, to bury his mother. After that visit, he said to me: "That's it, no more. It has finished. Greece doesn't exist for me any more."

I am grateful that I did have an opportunity to meet my grandmothers; once when I visited as a boy in 1975, and then again as a young adult in 1990. But even those encounters were made difficult by the limitations of my Greek and the overwhelming chasm of experience that separated myself, a privileged child of the developed world, and those two women, each born on the eve of the 20th century, in a peasant eastern Mediterranean world that was to be torn apart by two Balkan wars, two world wars, an occupation, two dictatorships, and a civil war. I remember sitting in a kitchen in Athens with my maternal grandmother, who was crying, wanting to know why her daughter had only visited her once in all the time she had been a migrant in Australia. I tried to explain the distances involved, the expense. Uncle Mitso, who was sitting with us, took me aside and explained that once in the early 70s he was driving his mother from the village to Athens when they came to a fork in the road. My giagia asked, "Mitso, if we turn left instead of right, can we go and visit Georgia in Australia?"

"You have to remember, Christo," my uncle said to me, "this is a woman born in a time when women were doomed to illiteracy and the shadows. Your giagia can't even read a map. And look at you, you are now a university student, you want to be a writer. You don't know how proud that makes us. But if you ever forget where you come from, fa se sfaxo [I will slaughter you]."

Read more. Australia was built on immigration and many Australians born in Australia, while retaining language and culture, upon visiting the homelands of their forefathers, find that some of this have been preserved in time.
Though Dad was from a family of a dozen children and my mother from a family of eight, only one other of my father's siblings migrated to Australia. But my parents' friends all became part of my extended family – every adult was addressed as theo and thea, uncle and aunt. Even now as an adult travelling in Greece I will still use this form of address when speaking to an elder, and my Greek friends and cousins will laugh at me. "That is something only rural people do," they say. "Only the real hicks. Do you still use those terms in Australia? You guys are still stuck in the 50s."
Italian Australians whose grandparents (nonna and nonno) had migrated, when visiting their grandparents' original village, have been told they speak old-fashioned Italian of the earlier generation.

Christos is a great writer of fiction but the personal stories are always the most interesting.

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